SALT LAKE CITY — Even though the Utah Transit Authority has seen its share of controversy — from high executive salaries to questionable overseas trips — half of Utahns somewhat or strongly approve of the agency.
That's according to a new UtahPolicy.com poll released Friday. The survey shows 35 percent of respondents somewhat approve while 15 percent strongly approve. Slightly more than a third, 36 percent, said they disapprove, while 13 percent said they didn't know.
However, nearly the same number — 47 percent — think UTA board members should be elected by voters, not appointed by elected officials.
The survey of 622 Utahns was conducted Dec. 8-14, 2015, by Dan Jones & Associates. It has a margin of error of roughly plus or minus 4 percent.
"It's good to know that many more Utahns have a favorable opinion of UTA than those who don't," UTA spokesman Remi Barron said in a prepared statement Friday.
But Chris Stout, president and co-founder of the Utah Transit Riders Union, is more critical of the 50 percent approval rating.
"Transit systems that meet the needs of riders have an overwhelmingly higher approval rating than 50 percent," Stout said. "So 50 percent, in my book, is dismal. They have a long way to go before everyone is happy with the system."
Stout said UTA's bus service is "probably the No. 1 thing that's lacking," and its public trust been damaged by numerous controversies that have swirled around the agency for years.
UTA came under fire in 2014 after a scathing audit by the Office of Utah Legislative Auditor General became public, revealing questionable development deals, UTA executives' extravagant pay and bonuses, and concerns over massive debt.
More recently, eyebrows were again raised in August when two board members went with lawmakers and lobbyists to Switzerland, even though UTA Board Chairman H. David Burton said the board did not know of the trip until after it happened.
Elected officials have blamed a poor public image of UTA for the failure of Proposition 1 in Salt Lake County, the ballot measure that would have hiked sales taxes to pay for transportation projects. In counties where UTA serves, the agency would have garnered 40 percent of Proposition 1's revenue.
Stout attributes UTA's controversial past as the reason why 47 percent of poll respondents think board members should be elected rather than appointed.
"We think there needs to be a representative board that really represents the people that are riding and using the system," Stout said. "People are just fed up with UTA saying one thing and then doing another."
Barron said UTA is focused on providing "excellent transit service" along the Wasatch Front and to be "responsible stewards for the resources entrusted to us."
"We will be doing our best in this coming year to show people they can depend on UTA," he said.
In response to questions regarding Utahns' opinions about appointed board members, Barron said, "UTA has not taken a position on questions regarding its governance structure."